MUSIC IS a major element in Druid’s forthcoming production of The Silver Tassie and the man entrusted with devising the score is noted British composer Elliot Davis. Davis started his musical career with the great Lionel Bart, creator of Oliver, and has worked on such West End musicals as Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and Blood Brothers.
During an afternoon break in rehearsals, Davis outlined his approach to O’Casey’s powerful play but first he began by describing his time with Lionel Bart. “I wrote to him while I was at university because I had a choice of being a lawyer or doing music and I thought ‘I just don’t want to be a lawyer’,” Davis recalls. “So, I wrote to him and peculiarly enough he wrote back and told me to give him a call, which I did, and I met him for lunch and we really got on. He used to sing into a dictaphone, then he’d give me the tapes and I’d write them all out and write the chords and he’d say, ‘No not that chord, this chord’ and then we’d work it out together. I remember he was staying for a period in a flat in Baker Street and there was this lovely London skyline and I remember him looking out the window over this London scene and singing a tune that had all the notes of the scale in it but it sounded completely original and so Lionel Bart. Working with him was a wonderful introduction to music, he taught me a lot about song writing and how to structure things.”
Davis is also a prolific music documentary maker for the BBC, interviewing and making programmes about such luminaries as Liza Minelli, Neil Diamond, Freddie Mercury and The Bee Gees. “I’ve been really lucky, I’ve met all my musical heroes, interviewing them and writing about their life stories and musical careers,” he declares. “One of the highlights of the documentaries for me was making the 60th birthday commemoration documentary on Freddie Mercury. He was such a huge talent with such varied interests from opera to art, and he had an impact on so many different people. Another one I enjoyed was on Barry Manilow. He’s underrated as a musician so it was lovely to get that side of his career told. He’s a wonderful jazz musician and a respected arranger and orchestrator yet most people just think of him as this 70s cheesy pop singer.”
Having worked in both theatre and on mainstream musicals, Davis is well placed to explain the different dynamics involved. “It’s a completely different approach, writing a musical and writing music that belongs in a play,” he states. “Doing music for a play is more like film score writing; your job is to accompany the drama, not to necessarily move it forward which is absolutely the job of music in a musical. When you write a musical your job is to say this character at the beginning of this song starts at A and must end at B, or C or D, by the end of the song. The music is the journey through which the character travels. But you don’t necessarily do that in a play at all, you accompany tone, mood and style and create an atmosphere so it’s a very different skill.”
Davis goes on to discuss his score for The Silver Tassie. “When I first read the play I thought it was really relevant, and a story for now with so many wars going on and people coming back wounded,” he observes. “As for the music, it came out of what was there. The music in Act Two for instance, comes out of this absolute boredom of these soldiers in the trenches; I felt that they would sing, and if they had an instrument they would play it. As for how it sounded, having read O’Casey’s notes I understood why he wanted to do it as plainchants and we’ve kept some of that. Act Two is set near a derelict monastery and there’s obviously a religious overtone to some of it so at those points we keep the plainchants. We also felt we could draw on a wider musical imagination than O’Casey might have had access to so there are points where it almost goes into music hall. Within the songs there are different scenes and tempos to get the different characters of the soldiers and I hope by the end of the Act you’ll see a real characterisation for those soldiers and that you’ll care about them, partly because of the way we’ve approached the music.”
The music in the play will be performed live by members of the cast. “We have a band of actors who also play music,” Davis explains. “We have a cellist who also plays the ukulele, we have a piano player who also plays the accordion, we have another person who is both a whistle and flute player, and we’ve got a guitarist so there’s some extraordinary talent onstage.”
O’Casey’s script suggests that ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ be sung at one point but Davis has dropped this song due to its present-day status as a rugby anthem, instead using the moving spiritual ‘O Freedom’. He’s also incorporated some actual First World War songs in Act Four, including a song called ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier’, an anti-war song from 1915.
This has been Davis’ first time working with Druid and he is relishing the experience. “It’s a great company and Garry is great to work with,” he enthuses. “She has a great sense of what’s right and a wonderful way of working with her creative team and I’ve really enjoyed that.”
The fruits of Davis’ and Druid’s labours can be appreciated from Monday August 23rd, when The Silver Tassie commences its run at the Town Hall, continuing to Tuesday, September 7th. It promises to be a memorable theatrical experience.